Once again Im off to the Himalayas for a trek. Deciding on the destination was easy: Nepal is in turmoil and this itself wouldnt deter me, but there are not many expeditions happening because of it. Ladakh is equally beautiful and luckily Jamie and Joel lead a trek through a more remote part there. I've been trekking with both of them before, they run a virtual trekking agency www.project-himalaya.com and often have trips with special routes for connaisseurs, and always a superb crew.
I arrive in Delhi shortly before midnight from Zurich, despite SARS get quickly through customs and find the people from Druk expeditions who bring me to a close-by hotel. Soon it's 4.00 in the morning; I wake up just before the alarm rings, pack and go for breakfast. The receptionist is huddled on the couch, gets up to fix breakfast and will probably be asleep again in five minutes - typical Indian work hours. I'm supposed to meet the two other trekkers here and we'll fly together to Leh and meet Joel some days later when he returns from another trek. Bob Rosenbaum was in Kangchenjunga and we've been briefly been in touch by email, Lance decided to join in the last minute when he met Jamie in Kathmandu. Malc from England will join ten days later.
The sun is an orange disk shining over a hazy green plain when the airplane takes off. Twenty minutes later we're above the middle hills of Lahaul which are densely forested and sparsely populated. The ridges of Himalayas foothills throw bizarre shadows. Very quickly the scenery changes; the southern slopes are still green, the northern faces are either barren or snow-covered. Soon there is an immense snowfield beneath us, a huge white area with hundreds of peaks and dozens of glaciers. A few stupendous massifs at the horizon tower over these lesser peaks. Four mighty ranges meet in Ladakh: the Karakorum and Ladakh range to the north, the Himalayas and the Zanskar range in the south.
The airplane makes a sharp right turn; its left wing hides a huge summit that must be one of the giants of the Karakorum (K2?, Masherbrum?). To the right lies Tso Moriri, our destination after two or three weeks of hiking. After a left curve we enter the Indus valley where ochre hills and mountains run parallel to the wide riverbed. Poplars follow the green stream at each bank, whitewashed square houses stand out between the harvested yellow fields. Higher up in the side-valleys, partly hidden, are more villages that can only exist thanks to their efficient usage of glacial water and the skillful construction of fields in the alluvial fan.
One last skilful manoeuvre above a ridge, then the pilot takes a 180į turn, 'passes' a monastery that clings to a precipice (Spituk, the first Gelugpa monastery at the edge of the 'Tibetan empire') - and we arrive in Ladakh. Blue sky, warm sun, no wind - the announcement 'Leh, outside temperature 3į C' comes as a surprise. If it's that cold in perfect conditions, how chilly is it going to get higher up in nasty weather in two weeks?
After an absence of 1Ĺ years I was wondering how itd feel to be back in the Himalayas. As the airplane door opens and I walk down the stairs I know Im still as excited as ever. The air is crisp, just the smell evokes both memories from past treks and images of the coming one. A jeep picks us up and drops us at the Highlife restaurant, situated ten minutes from the towns centre. For a few days we'll stay in the lodge right behind it. It's a new guesthouse, built between poplar and apple trees, flowers grow at the porch - a relaxing place. In Changspa, the houses would be more traditional and I could stay with a family, but its not worth moving for just two nights.
I lie down for a few moments in the room, after putting on warm clothes. I breathe in the cold air, watch the shadows of apple trees dancing on the ceiling and listen to birds chirping in the orchard until everything becomes blurry and I doze off. After a relaxing two-hour nap I stroll around town.
Knowing a little about Leh's past makes it easier to understand Ladakhi culture. People are outgoing and interested, yet think carefully and rationally before adopting western amenities. For hundreds of years trade routes from Persia, Mongolia, Tibet and China have crossed here. Though it was never a major part of the Silk Road, it was the most important southern branch to Afghanistan, Pakistan and western India which did have a large economical and cultural influence on Leh. Trade started to become less substantial a hundred years ago; still the atmosphere of these past days is tangible in the bazaar. If I'd have to characterise my first impressions with one word I'd say: civilised. It is more civilised than any other city on any Friday morning I have ever seen. People in the bazaar are humorous, courteous, self-assured and content.
The time I spend in town is short; I restrain myself from too much activity on the first day since my body needs some time to adapt to the sudden jump of altitude of 3'300 meters. And there's plenty of time; I have at least two more days in Leh. Joel and Jamie should be on the way from Zanskar and arrive in the next days.
While enjoying another nap I hear familiar voices. After some worrying seconds I realise with relief that the voice was not part of an erotic dream, and get up to greet Joel who is here in person. He arrived with Nicole, both decided to skip the climb of Kang Yaze that Jamie and two others are attempting right now. We have early dinner together, delicious Indian food. The tourist season has come to its end. The cold temperatures are noticeable while typing some emails. Temperatures start to drop below freezing point at night. My body will adjust to the cold after some days, though a better sleeping bag would be nice. Lobsang - our local guide - knows somebody who sells Indian Army sleeping bags at very reasonable prices.
Lobsang is a friend of Joel, the two have been trekking together numerous times. Born in a nomad family, his adventurous life has brought him to the military (some good stories there what they did on the Pakistain border) but eventually he left to become a guide. He also skipped the climb and came back two days early with Joel to help organise things for our trek: buying food, organising the jeep rides etc. He seems to be a boy from the countryside who loves nature but also knows to enjoy the more tempting things that the city offers.
I slept well, except for a dream in which I developed the computer program for vote counting in the Kashmir district - and modified it to make the Ladakhi win over the Srinagari. Strange dream, but at least I'm here with my thoughts, and not back at home.
Though it is cold in the unheated room, I'm cozily warm under the two blankets and wake up to singing of birds in the orchard. It's equally freezing cold in the shade, but in the sun it is quite warm already. The morning sun radiates a warm orange light that increases the stunning colours - a wonderful morning for a little walk.
Skipping breakfast, I slowly climb the hill above the old part of town and hike up towards the old palace. It was built in the 17th century by Senge Namgyal, the most powerful of the Ladakhi rulers. He conquered Guge in Western Tibet and Zanskar, but was defeated when advancing westwards to Muslim territories. The foundation of many monasteries is attributed to Senge, though his policy of isolation brought the lucrative trade on the Silk route to a halt after his death. His sons quarrel with Lhasa led to invasion from Tibet that was only fought back with the help of Ladakhs western Muslim neighbour. The price for help was conversion to Islam and the construction of the mosque in the bazaar. What looked like defeat turned out to be a blessing: people weren't forced to become Muslins and remained Buddhist. Not being part of Tibet saved them from the Cultural Revolution and the other atrocities that China inflicted on Tibet 350 years later. The palace that has witnessed turbulent times lies in ruins now, nevertheless it is still an impressive building that looks like a miniature of the Potala in Lhasa. Though it is empty, it'd be interesting to have look inside but it is locked, like the Chamba Lhakang - monastery of Avalokiteshvara. In the other monastery below the palace, an old monk is shaving in the courtyard. He seems a little burned-out from the tourist-season and tired of having to watch over the monastery, but is nice enough to fetch the key for the ancient locks to the door of the assembly hall.
The mural paintings are beautiful and distinctively Tibetan in style. It seems true that the only places with the detailed Kashmiri paintings that survived times and invasions are in Alchi. On top of the hill stands Namgyal Tsemo, the monastery of protective deities that was built by Tashi Namgyal, father of Senge Namgyal. The monk warns me that nobody will be up there, but it is a nice viewpoint and little hike won't hurt acclimatisation, so I follow the little trail upwards. Prayerflags are flattering between the top of two hills, spanning 50 meters to the compound on top of Namgyal Peak. Colourful flags lead to the red and white monastery that stands out against the dark blue sky. In the other direction, the mountain views of the Stok range that rises high above the Indus river are as impressive.
The monastery is topped by the ancient fort, whose commanding position over the nearby valleys must have been a terrific display of power in the - not always peaceful - earlier days.
After an early lunch we all meet for some sightseeing in the Indus valley. The number of monasteries is incredible. Since most have been built around the same time and are of the same Buddhist school Drugpa, a special branch in the Kagyu tradition that was widespread in Bhutan is prevalent, though some are Gelugpa these days - visiting all of them is impossible. Tikse and Stagnak are in easy reach and we hop in the back of a small Sumo jeep to drive the valley upwards.
The monastery of Tikse stands on top a natural rock pillar and overlooks the village that lies in the flat valley. In between are the small houses of its monks. From the monasterys roof the view is fantastic: the wide fertile riverbed, following on both sides are stretches of desert that end in the steep flanks of the mountains. Across the river, situated on a ridge, the white monastery of Mathok stands out against the black rock of the Zanskar range that rises behind it. The village is hidden in the poplar grove below whose yellow colours mark the oasis in the desert.
The large assembly hall of Tikse is being renovated; the craftsmen working on the wooden pillars and ceiling are from Nepal. The tallest room features 25 feet tall statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha.
A very narrow bridge takes us over the Indus river to another monastery. Stagnak is also built on top of a hill, though much closer to the Indus, and overlooks the valley in both directions. Just the building itself looks stunning, the massive walls and square shapes are simple, but neither clumsy nor simplistic. To my knowledge Stagnak translates to Black Tiger, but the name might have come from the founder of the Drug-pa sect. The main prayerhall is less dark than usual; the arrangements of the seats and altars are also more innovative than in other monasteries. Fine statues and paintings are displayed, in a 'storage-room' behind the altar at the far end are old statues. The library contains so many books that they are stored in a separate room that faces the Indus river. The abbot fled Bhutan over political quarrels with its King some decades ago.
From the roof the views are incredible: to the north lies the Ladakh range where barren rockfaces end in snow-covered crests. Poplars trees at the bottom of the rising faces indicate settlements oases in a hostile desert. The mountains of the Stok range in the south consists of dark rock, above the sheer faces some snow clings to the flanks. On a protruding ridge stands a white cube, Mathok gompa. The contrast to the fertile Indus plain couldnt be bigger, the setting sun increases the saturation of the colours of blue water, yellow fields, green poplars and willows, and the white cumulus clouds that float in a sky above the snow peaks.
The setting sun makes the drive back to Leh chilly, yet the fantastic atmosphere is worth the few minutes of shivering.
I am not woken by the muezzin's call this morning, maybe an indication that a strike is really happening today. I lie in bed for a while before getting up, enjoying the warmth of my bed and the fresh cold air in the room.
So far I have not really been in the bazaar yet, after spending time in the main road the little side alleys leading to the old part of town are very interesting. Behind the mosque - a tribute that had to be paid by a Ladakhi king for his bold and unsuccessful attempt to overthrow his Muslim neighbour - runs a little trail that leads to the old part of town. After passing an ancient willow tree that is revered by Sikhs, the 'Kashmiri part of town' begins. The ground floor of a dozen houses is used as bakery, the rooms have been completely blackened by the fume that must have come from the clay ovens for dozens of years. Kashmiri men with moustaches and curly hair roll white dough into balls, flatten and slam them against the inside wall of the round oven. When the bread is baked it doesn't stick to the clay anymore and can be picked up easily. Another business mainly in Kashmiri's hands seems to be fruit and vegetables markets. The owner sits in the middle of his colourful ware like a king on its throne. Most vegetables look familiar, but there are a few whose colour or form I have never seen, let alone eaten, before. The more exotic fruit are brought up from the Srinagar valley, yet the variety that grows at 3'500 m is still impressive: potatoes, barley, apricots, pees, apples, cabbage and carrots can be found in most private vegetable gardens around Leh.
The different crafts are concentrated in one area. The workshops of the goldsmiths are in an alley parallel to the main bazaar. A craftsman - or better artists - with Central Asian features sits next to an open coal fire in which he puts a large golden amulet. With a little pipe he heats up the coals to melt the part of amulet he wants to work on next, then he takes out the softened golden metal with tweezers and works on it until it has cooled down and needs to be melted again.
In Buddhist culture there exists no caste system, yet traditionally some professions were considered 'impure', one of them blacksmiths. The origin might be the belief that local spirits inhabits the ground - often snakes called nagas - and digging for precious metals or stones will wake them, and bring havoc over villages. And if digging is sacrilege, working with ore cannot be virtuous, either. Two hundred years ago, 4 artisan metalworkers from Nepal came to Ladakh to construct large Buddha images for monasteries. The descendants from the same four families live in Chiling and still today produce brass and copper ware of outstanding quality. I assume the goldsmiths have a similar story and immigrated from other areas. Lying in the middle of the trade route had one disadvantage: the easy access to goods of great quality made it unnecessary to develop local handicraft.
Another profession that is looked down on are butchers. None of the butchers and animal traders have Ladakhi or Tibetan features.
Beauty salons and hairdressers are frequented by men and women alike, the owners seem to come mainly from the lowlands. Interestingly, tailors are both Ladakhi and Kashmiri, men and women. Shoppers know what they want: both rich Ladakhis from Leh and poor nomads from the endless Changtang plateau go from store to store to compare before buying. They examine the quality, talk to tailors and then go to the next store to inspect dresses.
In the bazaar people greet each other with 'salam aleikum', outside the bazaar people usually say 'julay'. Is it all as harmonious as it seems at first? Though there were bitter arguments and even fights some years ago which cooled relations between Buddhists and Muslims, the two groups have since then lived together peacefully again.
All these groups of people and their skills have a long history, and I'd be surprised if the main bazaar looked much different a hundred years ago. Hopefully the current generation will value old tradition and learn new skills. This has been such a metropolitan place for centuries that people seem well prepared for future challenges. Contact with outside influences seems to have increased people's confidence in their own skills and culture.
Finally we board the jeep in late afternoon. Our luggage goes on the roof, some of it is squeezed in the back and Lobsang lies on it, two of us sit in front and four in the back. The drive is comfortable, the views beautiful: snow summits rise on our right, barren ranges to our left; yellow poplar and willow trees grow on the banks of the wider Indus river.
Our route takes us near Ladakh's largest and wealthiest monastery in Hemis. After crossing the river on a steel bridge we take a small, unpaved branch that follows an empty riverbed. The valley narrows and turns into a gorge that is dominated not by its shape, but by its orange and red colours. Vertical layers of rocks reach high into the sky, displaying the power of the tectonic plates' clash. Red bushes and small yellow trees grow between the white pebbles of the riverbed. The walls are so ragged that some spots glow like gold in the afternoon sun, while the rest of the walls are already in the dark shade.
After a right curve in the valley we reach Shang Sumdo. Our tents are already put up below the village. I hear women singing, a traditional occupation during harvesting, which still seems to be going on here. The barley in the fields has already been cut and brought to the village where the ears are laid out on a flat spot for thrashing. To separate the sheaves from the corn, three horses and a yak tied on a long stick walk in a circle over the crop. After some rounds, the grain and straw is shovelled into bags for further processing. Hay serves as fodder for the animals in winter. The corns are later picked up and cleaned, before being further processed into tsampa, which together with potatoes makes up the staple diet. The agricultural season is very short and must be finished before frost and snow arrive unexpectedly. Therefore work goes on well after dusk.
In the meantime were getting ready and enjoy the cosiness and warmth of the low dining tent. For once not on the standard tables and chairs, but a more innovative idea: We sit on carpets on the floor in foldable chairs, what seems uncomfortable at first turns out to be both warmer and cosier than the traditional dining-tents. Our first dinner is delicious: a fresh salad as a starter, followed by dal baht (lentils and dal) and palak paneer (Indian cheese in spinach). As much as I admire the great explorers Tilman and Shipton and wish to have travelled with them, our different opinions on the necessary quantity and quality of food would have led to altercation on the second day. Jamie does the entertainment today, telling funny and gruesome stories from above 8'000 meters and the recovery of a dead body from Cho Oyo for which he got good money from an insurance company.
When I go to bed the stars and the Milky Way shine brightly. It is cold, which I'm happy about because I'm curious to see how warm I'll be in my Indian Army sleeping bag.
The hot water bottle at the bottom of the sleeping bag was too hot for a long, long time, and I am snuggly warm. Despite a barking dog I sleep surprisingly well, usually I need more time to get used to spending nights in tents. It is shortly before sunrise when I wake up, but since it will be another hour before the sun reaches the campsite, I doze for awhile. Then I open the tent to watch the valley wall glowing in an orange light. The vegetation is bathed in even more saturated colours than yesterday evening.
After a good breakfast in the sun I clear out the tent and start packing - as usual it will take some days before becoming efficient. Since we have to wait for Joel to catch up from Leh, I walk up the valley where a monastery lies hidden behind a small forest. The local school must also be there, half a dozen children from the village wave as they pass us on their way.
Just the scenery alone is worth the short excursion. A rugged cliff consisting of mangled layers of rock in various reddish colours builds the valleys end. In the middle of a forest of poplars stands a large white compound - the monastery. A nun opens the small prayer room that contains books, thangkas and a large number of butter figures (tormas). The large assembly hall on the ground floor remains locked, the key-keeper has gone out. So we sit on the balcony instead, enjoying the warm morning sun and a pleasant conversation with the nun.
While we sit there and chat (Nicole's Tibetan is great, mine not too good), an old monk joins us. His room is upstairs and not in the courtyard like the monks cells. He might not be the official abbot, nevertheless he is a figure of authority and charm. Despite his age - he claims to be 85 years old - he enjoys good health, and maybe just as importantly, is in good spirits and the many wrinkles on his face deepen when he smiles or becomes thoughtful. 40 years ago he visited Central Tibet and studied in Drepung monastery, one of the three main Gelugpa centres that attracted 6'000 students from all over Tibet. He travelled by foot and the journey over the vast Tibetan plateau took him 4 months. His travel journey would be more interesting than mine, but due to my limited language skills and lack of time his story will probably never be told.
After coming back to Ladakh he settled down in this monastery and hasn't left it since. This is a little branch of the main gompa in Lamayuru and Spituk, which belongs to the Gelugpa sect. The nun told us she practises the Drugpa tradition, a school that was widespread in Bhutan and Ladakh once. This lead to military alliances to protect themselves from the Gelugpa-governed Tibet, but couldn't protect Ladakh from being forced to accept Tibet's influence. The rules of Drugpa are less strict than the Gelugpa, but I have never heard of nuns and monks sharing the same monastery. I'm also confused because I thought that Drugpa is part of Kagyu and not Gelugpa (the sect of the two 'parent monasteries'). The compound is well kept and hosts 20 monks and nuns, but only three are currently staying here. The others are further south, if I understand correctly somewhere near Simla. We decline offers of tea, instead eat some small but very sweet apples and leave with many wishes for good luck on our journey. The horses are still being loaded when we arrive back at camp to begin our first walking day.
What a start! We pass the traditional whitewashed houses of Shang Sumdo where people continue with the harvest work. At the town's end a little trail marks the beginning of our route. My excitement grows as my eye follows the path in the middle of the reddish slope. It disappears behind a curve and must climb up from there to a pass between the snow peaks that stand out against the blue sky.
The trail runs above a meandering creek that flows in a wide riverbed covered by colourful bushes. The red colour of rocks is contrasted by barren hills of slightly different colour and the dark blue sky. Just the colours alone are incredible. Walking is easy and we slowly gain altitude, when the valley gets narrow we descend to the creek and follow along its dry bank. Only little water is flowing at this time of the year, this spares us risky river crossings that are probably necessary in summer.
Despite the short distance we'll cover today, Lobsang has set up lunch and waits for us below a cliff. Trekking in Ladakh is a little different than in Nepal. Standard luxuries like bed-tea and hot washing water are 'only' served on request. You put up your own tent, and instead of a two-hour lunch break we only stop for half an hour to eat pack lunch. I prefer this more simple style, though there will be days when I miss a filling hot lunch of dal baht. Usually we have chapatis with sun-dried tomatoes, cheese from Manali, and some salad; wrapping it all up makes good sandwiches. For dessert we simply have some cookies.
After lunch it gets a little more strenuous, walking in the riverbed requires more attention, the sun shines pretty hot, the trail is less even and the altitude slows us down. There are fewer houses and fields, instead rock faces and bizarre natural stones figures dominate the scenery. The valley is barren except for a line of trees growing 40 meters above the bottom of the gorge, indicating an irrigation channel. The village of Chukirmo, featuring prominent on the map, is just a few isolated houses. The smallest building, set a little outside, is the school. Boys and girls aged 5 to 12 are taught by a local woman, both teacher and students enjoy going to school. Two girls finish their test inside, after a quick check of their work the teacher 'arranges' the kids for a picture. They do not understand my German-Lhasa dialect of Tibetan, after a short conversation in English and a small donation it's time to go on.
The horses have overtaken us and wait on a little plateau overlooking the river that looks like the entrance of a narrow gorge. The wall to the left is already quite steep, on our right are barren slopes with some thorny bushes. To my surprise there are a dozen fairly large animals grazing higher up, they can't be horses and after looking more carefully I realise it's a flock of bharal - blue sheep. They can be found all over the Himalayas in the more remote areas. They scared me the first time I almost stepped on them in a narrow gorge in Mustang. During the next encounter in Dolpo they were grazing on slopes high above Shey - supposedly they are 'abundant' in Ladakh and hopefully I'll see them from closer in the coming days. To me theyve become a sight I associate with remoteness. So even the distant glimpse makes me content.
After unpacking the horses, Tenba the horseman leads them to the slope across the river where they are left alone to roam and graze until the next morning. Hopefully there won't be any wolves around, or the horses decide by themselves to wander too far.
A white chorten watches over the quiet valley. A stunning place to camp high above the river, views up into a narrow gorge and down towards the Indus valley, at the horizon the Ladakh range forms a mighty border to Tibet.
The stars shine brightly and accentuate the dark ridges against the bright sky.
The horses didnt seem to have strayed too far, when I open my tent they are driven down from the opposite hillside. Today's route will also be short and we take our time before setting out. The sun's radiation is strong already, making breakfast very enjoyable. Nearby is a little spring with natural mineral water, according to Lobsang it gives strong muscles (though he should have mentioned that he mixes it with whiskey). Chu means water, kirmo sour: the spring gave the village its name. The slightly salty and bubbly water is tempting not only for us, blue sheep also seem to like it. A flock finds a way down the steep rock face and descends to the spring to lick the sedimentation from the stones.
I try to approach them but they retreat, not in a hasty escape but in a gentle walk up the inaccessible cliffs. A little vegetation grows at the bottom of the gorge, apart from these bushes of rosebud it is just barren rocks. Fantastic colours and formations stretch into the blue, cloudless sky - increasing in sheerness the deeper we enter the gorge. A little rivulet flows in the wide riverbed, making crossings easy despite the thin, almost invisible layer of ice on the rocks. It must be cold at night, luckily I don't notice that in my sleeping bag.
An eagle flies high above and scans the rim for rodents. Some fluffy sparrows hide in the bushes, except their chirping a solemn silence lies in the gorge. The trail was repaired recently, making walking less tiring than the day before. The horses walk at the bottom of the gorge, we often climb up a little to circumvent narrow spots where you'd have to wade in the creek to get through.
When the gorge opens up a snow-covered range rises ahead of us. As we get around the corner a cloud of dust rises from the trail. We've startled a group of 10 blue sheep that were grazing along the path. After some metres they stop, turn around and stand there watching us. Fleeing in open spaces is not a good option for them. Therefore they usually try to remain invisible, but when the potential attacker gets too close they try to reach inaccessible cliffs where they can't be followed.
We get within 25 meters to them and wait. Once their initial surprise is over, they continue grazing, only one young goat is sitting on the ground watching us. Both male and female animals feature horns of different shapes. We try to get closer and again they run away for some meters, then turn around, calm down and continue to graze. At some point their escape route is cut off and they flee down to the creek, cross it and are up in the middle of a steep cliff. A small female takes another route and has to cross the creek above the waterfall. It takes a big leap over the two boulders where the water falls down ten feet; in the background rises the snow-covered range. This elegant jump will stick to my mind only, because it took me too long to get the camera ready. Nevertheless, since I got other good shots I and am happy to have bought the 300mm lens.
The large distance these animals have covered in just a few seconds is remarkable. They know they are safe now across the creek and slowly walk higher up, out of the cliff and onto a ridge where they disappear on the other side. A few minutes later the tip of their horns reappear above the ridge, but they won't come any closer now.
From the waterfall to the campsite it's just a short walk. The snow ridge at the horizon will be our goal for tomorrow, right now I am tired enough to be happy about getting to camp. One last crossing of the creek, up a sidevalley and we reach a little plateau big enough for our tents. While enjoying pack lunch, the faint sound of a ringing bell announces the arrival of the lead horse.Our horseman suggests a better campsite further on where risk of rockfall is smaller. Just a few minutes later we reach another plateau with fine views.
It is early afternoon and the sun is fierce, but a cold wind makes the tent more attractive for naps than the outside. The four hours to dinner could be used to walk into a side valley toward Zanskar, but an easy afternoon for acclimatisation is more tempting. As the sun sets it becomes chilly, luckily soup arrives punctually at 600 and warms me up. Lobsang usually serves the food, whoever sits closest to the entrance gets his food first, but the corners are a little warmer and there won't be any food shortage. After a grand dal baht (both in taste and quantity) with paneer and vegetable curry I definitely have collected enough calories to make it through the cold night.
I stuff a hot water bottle inside the sleeping bag and step out to brush my teeth and watch the sky. By the time I'm ready to sleep it is cozily warm in the sleeping bag. Lighting a candle helps to warm the tent and creates a pleasant light for reading. A piece of chocolate adds to the perfect atmosphere. Not surprisingly, a few pages later I am already asleep.
Today will be our first test. Crossing the first high pass and descending on the other side will take more effort and time than yesterday. The plan for an early departure is changed due to the cold temperatures in the morning. We stay in our tents a little longer and wait for the sun. We're not the only ones longing for its rays, blue sheep are also coming down to warm up on the slope.
A little black line marks the trail that cuts through the white mountain flank, the ascent is technically easy but looks potentially strenuous. It seems straightforward and free of snow, but the huge white wall looks intimidating. At first I walk along the frozen creek, then the valleys turn left where the snowfield starts. Soon the snow covers the trail and makes it slippery walking. Lance goes ahead breaking trail and cutting footsteps. I prefer walking on the small band of snow-free stones along the trail, using the skipoles to balance when necessary. The walk is harder than expected, but when the last curve is behind us a long line of prayerflags announce the pass.
What a scenery! Pyramid-shaped snow peaks with gently curved ridges rise above a wide valley and its little meandering creek. Kang Yaze (6400 m) rises above all of them, glaciers cling to its flanks. The Zanskar range ahead with its chaos of hundreds of rugged peaks, narrow gorges and washed out ravines is the most stunning and intimidating sight. The dark blue of the sky, white of snow and the dried yellow grass is a simple, but effective colour combination.
Looking back, our last three day's walk look less inhospitable than the scenery ahead, still it is hard to imagine that we've found a way up between the barren mountains. We're high enough to see above the Stok range and into the Indus Valley, and even a little further. The air is so clear that I even spot Chemre, a small monastery in a northern sidevalley on the way to Tragtok, in my opinion the most special of Ladakhs monasteries.
The weather is perfect, the wind less cold than expected, and we spend some time on the pass until Lobsang arrives with lunch. The horses have trouble getting up the frozen trail, the horsemen unload them so that the strongest horse can break trail for the others. Some loads might even have to be carried by Tenba and Tenzing themselves. But Lobsang is confident that they will meet us at camp, it will just take them longer than expected.
This side of the pass looks like a gentle downhill walk into the large valley. The views are stunning, snowpeaks to our left, rugged canyons of Zanskar ahead, red ranges on our right. But most impressive is the feeling of vastness; there is endless space around us. Nimaling translates to summer place. The grass on the pastures makes it a good grazing ground during spring and summer. Now it is completely empty, and the few people in our group soon lose sight of each other.
Scenery is often best enjoyed in solitude I let the others pass me, sit down and take my time to enjoy the spectacular landscape. There is no visible trail but eventually we all meet near the creek for lunch. After a hearty snack on the pass I only eat a little and am eager to leave. The sun is burning fiercely and Ive already finished my two litres of water.
The canyons of Zanskar that seemed so far away are getting closer and reveal more and more details. It looks like a natural maze. The washed out valley to our right shows fine lines of erosion; black, grey, yellow and red rock layers are topped by a fine line of snow at the top of the peaks.
We have another stop at a small green pond and spot the horses that have just arrived on the pass. The sun starts to really irritate me, therefore I am happy when the valley narrows and we get the first shade of the day. Nothing reminds me of the wide pastures of Nimaling now, steep walls surround us and the narrow fissure ahead is the only exit into the next valley.
The valley floor here is fertile; people use the terraced fields to grow barley. Between the fields are three isolated stone huts that are all abandoned. Farmers and probably shepherds use them in the few precious summer months when glacial water and warm temperatures turn the barren hills into green meadows. When winter approaches, the shepherds move back to their villages.
Yet the windswept Nimaling is not devoid of life; at the pass I noticed small spiders, a little further down were some birds that resembled wagtails. Large hares or marmots have already started their hibernation, but I catch sight of a one-foot long tailless rodent that flees from one thorny bush into the next one when I try to follow it.
The horses have not caught up with us yet, and we decide to camp here. Soon afterwards the horses arrive, it was a tough day for them but the nearby creek and barley stubbles are a nice reward for them.
I wake up early and have to force myself not to get up too early, skip breakfast and walk to the next village. Breakfast is too important. The horses grazed very nearby, making it easy for Tenba to drive them into a group and tether their feet to load them.
The way out of the valley goes between two walls of vertical rock layers. The creek takes a sharp right bend where we cross it on a nicely built wooden bridge. Ahead lie the distorted ranges of Zanskar, opposite some gentler mountains with snowy peaks. A large eagle āsailsĎ along the ridge, covering a large distance without moving its wings a single time. Itís a lovely valley with a creek running at the bottom of the vertical cliffs. The trail runs on its other side where colourful bushes seem to act like border guards between the Zanskar cliffs and the more open Ladakhi landscape. Fields cover the few spots that are a little wider; people live a harsh life and have to use every cultivable spot that the mountains offer, no matter how tiny it is. Unwatched yaks and donkeys graze on the harvested fields. Another narrow passage lies ahead before we enter the wider valley of the Hankar.
A small irrigation channel branches off to the right, indicating a larger settlement at its end further down. An isolated tall rock resembling a gigantic stalagmite looms over the village with a tower built on top. Itís almost impossible to notice, first because you wouldnít expect a building on such an exposed spot, and secondly because it blends in so perfectly.
The wind carries the sound of people singing and whistling towards us. A minute later we are at a thrashplace in front of Hankar. The barley was cut from the fields and is now flailed. Two women throw the piles in the air, the wind blows the sheaves away. The fascination of harvest scenes is hard to describe, it might be the simplicity of rural life that appeals to bored and stressed westerners, but hopefully it is more than that. Maybe it is the subtle presence of people, their will to live in these stark surroundings. The human presence does not decrease the wilderness; instead it emphasises the beauty of nature. And it is heart-warming to see the satisfaction of the people, the pleasure they find in their daily life Ė of course they do face many hardships and sorrows, but this is harder to detect.
The village consists of a dozen houses, the characteristic white-wash is gone due to the increasing rain in summer. The architecture is less identical than usual, some houses are simple and two-storied, others have ladders going to the roof on which the storeroom and living quarters are. We stop at the first house and walk up the staircase to the roof. A young couple shows us their house, especially the meticulously clean living room that also serves as a kitchen. The iron hearth stands in the middle of the room, near the window are some benches with thick carpets. A cupboard above the fireplace contains the kitchen utensils, apparently this is the housewife's pride. Polished pots, cups, ladles and spoons are neatly arranged like in a museum. Though this is not a regular shop we go on a shopping frenzy. Kitchen utensils, pots, bowls and rupees change hands and everybody is happy in the end.
A single wooden pillar supports the ceiling, at the upper end are butter paintings of the 8 auspicious symbols of Buddhism. I've read somewhere that the butter turns into a natural form of penicillin after some months, but I don't know if that's true, and if it were, if people know this and use it as medicine.
Above the fireplace is a second cupboard with a few clay figures of animals like frogs, horses, goats. Usually they are created during Losar, the Tibetan New Year in February. In other ceremonies I have seen that clay figure are used to 'unload' all the evil and cast it onto the effigy, afterwards it is carried out of the house and put down on a crossroad. This must be a completely different custom, maybe the Ladakhi have an opposite ceremony, in addition to getting rid of evil they might have another one to bring the 'good' into their house.
A separate building on the rooftop is used as a storeroom where bags of barley and - sewn into a yak hide Ė chunks of butter are kept. In a warm south-facing room stands a large basket filled with blankets, the housewife proudly shows the 'content', her two-month old baby. She takes the basket with her when she goes out, the little boy peeping out between the blankets.
Hankar lies in the Markha valley, probably the most popular trekking route in Ladakh that sees 1'000 trekkers a year, most of them in summer. Now that the tourists are gone, the village appears unaffected my modern times. A fortress overlooks the valley from the top of a crag, like a natural extension. Attackers hundreds of years ago must have thought: "Wow, the guy who had this built up there is somebody I don't want to mess with." The trail is chiselled in the sheer rock and obviously still in use. Only the very top and the tower are visible from below, when we reach the top of the hill we are surprised by the size of the entire compound. Dozens of houses - now dilapidated - formed a village much larger than Hankar itself. Whether it was destroyed by Dogra invaders who conquered the area in the middle of the 19th century, or fell into ruins because its inhabitants left remains a mystery. The tower must still fulfil a function, prayerflags flatter in the wind and though it is unlikely that it's the seat of a local deity, villagers might think of it as a form of protection against possible mishaps like storms, droughts, or disease. Putting up the prayerflags looks like a task for the bravest villager. Getting to the base requires some rock climbing, but then up the narrow stairs inside the tower proves too adventurous for me.
The views are stunning again: People are working on the yellow bushels of barley. The village lies peacefully between the fields in the valley with a stupendous wall on the one side and barren hills on the other. A little creek shines silvery in the sun and Kang Yaze majestically overlooks the whole scene. In the opposite direction down the valley is a forest with trees of different colour, quite a contrast to the endless repetition of bizarre rock formations.
The monastery is a simple square building at the outskirts of the village, nobody is there and I cannot find the keeper of the key. Nevertheless, it is a fine place to sit down in the shade and admire the village and its fortress. The tower is a reminder of a great past, though it seems that the villagers today have a solid future based on a sensible combination of farming and tourism.
Leaving the pleasant village behind is hard; a two-day stay would be a nice way to learn more about Ladakh and its people. But we have been lucky enough to get a good glimpse, and it's time to leave. A number of passes lie ahead of us on the way to Tso Moriri. Tomorrow we should cross Zalung Karpo La. To make it a little easier, setting camp as high up as possible is a good idea and weíll have to walk late into the afternoon to get there.
After a short walk in the fantastic canyon along the river Langtang Chu we cross it once and have lunch on a wide plateau. The shallow creek flows in long gentle curves from one side of the valley to the other, forcing us to either wade through or jump across it. We pass many sidevalleys and slowly the snow peaks above Hankar get smaller and smaller. Suddenly I hear rockfall, caused by blue sheep that have descended to feed on grass along the river. I get to the opposite bank when they decide that I got too close, and calmly retrace their steps up the mountain.
The way to camp is long. Very long. The scenery is stunning at first and captivates all senses, but after hours of walking my legs get heavier and heavier, and after the sun has sunk early behind the ridge a cold wind starts blowing up the valley. After every curve I expect to see our horses grazing on the dry yellow grass, with our tents already put up in the background. Another curve. I pass more mani walls without catching sight of the camp. Another curve. I'm weary, but luckily everything else is ok - the weather is fine, I'm in good health and the scenery stunning. Yet the wish to relax comfortably at camp is bigger than the pleasure of walking. Another curve. Then, finally, in the middle of a wider valley I see the horses and a little later the kitchen tent.
After putting up the tent and settling in it's already time to get out the warm clothes. Dusk sets in, and no sign of Bob and Joel yet. Bob was not feeling well yesterday and slowed down before lunch today. Lobsang takes a horse and rides back to see what kind of help they need. He returns soon afterwards, grabs some food and sets out again. More than one hour later it is pitch dark, and they haven't arrived yet. While waiting for them, the cosiest and most interesting place is in the kitchen tent, Tenba speaks good English and is outgoing, Phuntsok is a little shy.
Finally we see a flashlight coming closer, but instead of Bob it's the 'independent' woman from Australia. She couldn't find a horse and guide going to Zanskar, has changed her plan and follows us instead. In a day she will give up carrying her heavy backpack and stay in the horsemen's tent. She doesnít talk to us, we donít talk to her Ė she is a strange travel Ďcompanioní.
Eventually two other lights come up from the valley, Bob has light bronchitis and is terribly exhausted, but otherwise fine. He sits outside his tent, enjoys the hot soup, and will hopefully get some rest tonight.
Weíre not crossing the pass today. Instead itís a restday, mainly to let Bob recover and see how he feels in the evening. Tomorrow he has to decide whether to cross the pass or head back to Leh.
I can't sleep in and am up early, but too lazy to go for long walks. Kang Yaze looks easy to climb from this side, but it's definitely not a stroll up there. Hunting for blue sheep with binoculars would be interesting, but there don't seem to be any in this part of the valley. And going back to Hankar is a long way. So I stay at camp, read a little and enjoy the rest day.
Wind starts to pick up and by noon a cloudcover comes over the pass. Rest days with nice weather are great, but when it's not that warm the alternative of spending hours in the sleeping bag with some snacks and a book is equally fine.
Dinner is the highlight of the day, soon after finishing my three plates I'm back in my tent to escape the freezing temperatures.
It was cloudy when I went to bed, some hours later in the middle of the night the stars shine brightly. Assuming that the bad weather has moved on towards Zanskar, I open the tent at 600 expecting a bright morning - only to find an inch of snow on the ground. Though it does look enchanting, it is an unpleasant surprise because walking will be more difficult, especially for the horses if there is more snow higher up. Hopefully the pass will be crossable.
Shortly before breakfast the fog lifts. The clouds are blown apart and reveal fantastic winter scenery. A thin layer of snow covers all but the steepest crags, the last layers of fog lie in the valley and the blue sky appears above us. The air has a stunning fresh smell. The snow crunches under my boots when we start, and though the sound usually indicates very low temperatures (at home) thanks to the strong sun I only wear a thin fleece sweater. Like yesterday, we continue up the along the river; but the whole atmosphere is completely different. The snowed in landscape appears like a scene from a fairytale.
The creek partly froze at night; water gurgles between the white boulders and disappears below the black ice. Thin branches of bushes and structure of yellow grass are accentuated by the snow that sparkles in the light. Sadly, the sun gets stronger and turns the fine flakes into drops of water.
We walk on the barren pebbles in the riverbed now. The river branches, and we continue our tough walk stumbling over the rocks. When we leave the river and start to climb on a small trail, there is no sight of the pass to guide us. Each of the surrounding hills could be the pass, and then finally the actual ridge gently rises ahead of us.
I expect to be at the top in half an hour - but it's a 'false pass'. There's nothing to be done except going on. My legs feel heavy and tired which is unusual, maybe the rest day wasn't good for my muscles. We walk on a snowfield, and reach the second false pass. The sky is partly covered by black clouds, partly blue and the battle between the two continues as we follow horse tracks and climb higher on a gentle slope. Then we see prayerflags on the horizon, a few steps later I'm finally on the Zalung Karpo La, 5'120 m. I stare in awe for a few seconds. The whole world - which at the moment consists of Zanskar and Ladakh - lies to my feet. An immense landscape opens up; snow-capped mountains, barren rockfaces, arid hills and deep gorges. The threatening clouds in the sky increase the feeling of vastness, they float in the blue sky like wanderers without a destination. A long ridge with several peaks dominates the left, to the right the view towards Zanskar is both beautiful and intimidating. A storm is building up over the canyons, though even in nice weather the canyons seem hostile and devoid of life.
In comparison, our route seems easy. We see for dozens miles, far at the horizon is the Mentok range near Tso Moriri, the end of our trek which we will reach in ten days. Luckily we cannot see any details, so no thoughts of the ending enter my mind. Finally my fingers hurt too much from the cold (operating Nikon F65 with gloves is impossible), and since everybody arrived and Bob was surprisingly fast, we start descending. Despite the freezing wind we stayed on the pass for a long time, taking pictures and admiring the scenery.
This side of the pass is completely free of snow. The trail zigzags down steeply and within half an hour we have lost all the hard-earned meters from the ascent. When it flattens out (relatively speaking), we stop at the first suitable lunch spot and wait for the others. As we rest and look up, the horses appear on the crest, tiny dark figures against the sky. Taking a break feels great, sitting down and stretching my legs is wonderful but I'm not very hungry. I've had lots of glucose and chocolate on the way up, while waiting on the pass I ate more biscuits and tofu sticks. I'm either full or too exhausted to enjoy the sandwiches today.
When the horses catch up with us, I follow them down the valley. It's very windy, therefore hot and cold at the same time. The horses take the upper trail, I descend to the river bed. A dark mountain, resembling a watchtower, looms above everything else, to the right are strange peaks of grey and white stones - lofty not because of their heights but because of the strange composition of vertical and horizontal crags and their colours. Vegetation increases as I descend in the washed out gully, the thorny red bushes and the little creek add colour and life to the canyon. For the second day, there is no sign of civilisation. It took me some time to get used to Ladakh, it is much wilder and rougher than Nepal, and somehow the stark scenery makes me feel tired more quickly than when walking through lush rice fields.
A meadow at the creek is a fine place to rest and a perfect site to camp. I lie on the grass, sun in my face, feet in the gurgling stream - but it is not quite hot enough to be totally comfortable. When the sun disappears, it gets chilly and when the horses arrive, we start putting up tents and put on warmer clothes instantly.
As I fall asleep I hear strange noises on my tent, but don't bother to find out the cause: if it's snowing there is nothing I can do about it anyway. We get up early. The sun has risen but is hiding behind dark clouds already. Suddenly it clears, convincing me to start right after breakfast a little ahead of the others. I do enjoy company and woulnd't want to trek alone, but while walking I don't need company. I slowly stroll along the creek, stopping often and just looking around because the colours are brilliant this morning. The grass looks golden and the bushes bright red. Interesting clouds start building up, the wind changing their shape constantly. I scare up various small birds, and some rodents.
Further down in the valley are houses, all are empty and probably just used in summer. The creek feeding the irrigation channels has dried up some weeks ago, and people will only come back next spring. The creek we've been following since the pass disappears in a narrow gorge. On top of the some of the nearby peaks in lofty altitude are prayerflags that mark some special places as sights of protectors. The pre-Buddhist belief in local spirits and ghosts is still followed all over the Himalayas, maybe even stronger here.
On top of the black hill on the left stand two ruined buildings, the black silhouettes are barely noticeable. The fort controlled access to the valley, and gave the area its name: Karnak - Black Fortress. In earlier times there must have been either much more trade or the village at its foot must have been larger: the half dozen low stone shags does not seem worthy of a kingdom.
The valley suddenly makes a right turn and gets increasingly smaller, an impressive gorge which I enter with anticipation. Birch trees grow in the shade, the sun rarely reaches the valley floor. Even in the dry season it is a pretty scene, in spring or summer this must be even more enchanting.
Large holes puncture the rock cliffs above, some look like having been created by water but the ones hundreds of meters higher up must be the work of wind. In summer the crossing of the Karnak Chu is as difficult as beautiful, even now the creek is too wide and deep to jump across. Instead of wading through I accept Lobsang's offer to carry me across. We're at Tantse Sumdo where three valleys meet. To the northwest it goes to Zanskar, theoretically at least. It looks like a wild trail - if there even is one. It'd probably take a few days to reach the next village, and this sounds like an exciting destination for further exploration. [Back at home I looked at the map more closely: there is a trail from here to Phuktal gompa over the Shapodok La, 5í680 m high. A promising route, I have to talk to Joel about it.] Instead we head south, walking through an enchanting forest along the wide and deep creek that flows so quickly and straightforward that is seem more like a channel than a natural river. Dark clouds hang over Zanskar, and slowly the looming storm moves towards us. The scenery becomes surreal, the yellow grass - brightly lit by the sun - is contrasted sharply by the black clouds that move down and start hiding the crags. In the middle of another gorge we find a sheltered spot and prepare lunch. I shiver in the wind and snow starts to fall in tiny flakes. The contrast between the birch grove along river and the steep barren tall walls above it couldnít be bigger. After some last minutes in the impressive canyon the scenery opens up and we enter a wide valley full of life.
Little ponds along the creek turn this valley into a fertile swampy plain. Half a dozen different kinds of small birds sit on bushes and rocks along the river. Above the valley walls a small bird of prey literally 'stands' completely still in the wind, then starts moving very slowly without clapping its wings. In a field of boulders ahead I thought I saw something move. I sit down and wait. Two minutes later a fistsized head peaks out between the rocks, watches curiously and eventually slips out of its hiding.
I spot the first butterflies in days, the small orange-winged insects are carried away by the wind. This is one of those days that you wish wouldn't end. I enjoy every single step, sight, sound and smell and let the horses and most of the group overtake me. They disappear far ahead where the plain enters another gorge. In summer people come here with their cattle, the round little stones walls on the dry land mark their tent places. The yak dung has not been picked up, an indication that people get their firewood from the forest? We cross the yellow plain and are soon back in another canyon.
In a widening of the valley a special site dominates the valley from a little elevation. A white-washed lhatso is the centre, the site is very large thanks to an enormous mani wall with thousands of carved stones. The actual place of worship is the lhatso that is decorated with juniper branches and strips of white cloth. The branches are symbolic and represent arrows. These arrows represent either the legendary hero Gesar or other powerful local mountain deities that have power and control over nature. In addition to please their mountain deity upon whose good-will depends so much the nomads have put coins in a little hole at the foot of the 'altar'. Next to it is a pile of dozens of yak skulls with horns to keep demons away; some are inscribed with mantras. Three mani stones stand out of the hundreds of others: one depicts three figures, another shows Yamantaka, the god of death. The colour and detail of the figures and letters are stunning. Yet the most intriguing figure is not very sophisticated, a grey stone with a Buddha figure that has a completely different, almost three-dimensional style. Next to it another similar stone, yet where the Buddha's body is expected, there is just a hole. Did the artist try to depict the 'voidness' of Buddha's teaching? Or is it an ancient symbol that was worshipped long before Buddhism arrived in this part of the world? I donít know.
What we do know is the meaning of the place, thanks to the intensive research that has been carried out in Ladakh. From the lhatso we see a perfectly triangular peak above the ridge. It is the seat of the mountain goddess. During ceremonies Tibetan beer - chang - and really we do find the yak horn that holds the offer to the deity. It shines thanks to the butter on the outside, and itís smells strongly after the fermented barley inside. The contract with the protector is to be renewed once a year in spring, it is becoming difficult to find volunteers for the ceremony. Local mountain deities are reigning over the area, killing and eating the fish from the creek brings sickness or even worse over the sinner.
I spend some time at this special site. The risk of snowfall seems little despite the dark clouds that linger ahead. The trail takes us through the middle of the gorgeous valley, vertical rock walls continue to rise above us. Jackdawsí cry break the otherwise complete - not silence - but serene tranquillity that I associate with beautiful and quiet afternoons in the mountains.
Abraded walls rise in exact 90į towards the sky. For awhile I walk with Bob, we halt for a few moments to watch an eagle that cruises along the wall scanning the ground, turns around and watches the ridge again. Finally the eloquent bird climbs higher and disappears into the next valley. Then we continue, our conversation soon comes to an end, maybe because we both feel that these moments shouldn't be spoiled by superficial conversation.
At the horizon a white range dominates the plain. Far ahead we spot some buildings with strange proportions. Getting closer I realise that this is not Dat yet, the buildings are just long mani walls and not houses. Now that the clouds have become darker and the cold wind could mean snow, the magic afternoon atmosphere has vanished. All of a sudden Ė though not unwelcome - our little tent-city comes in sight, situated beautifully near the creek in the yellow plain.
In a rocky sidevalley is the village Dat. Very simple stone houses with red bushes on their roofs reflect the harsh life of semi-nomadic settlers. The tall white-washed buildings with their gardens in the Indus valley look like mansions compared to Dat. Nobody is in the village, all the houses are locked. The monastery is a fine building. The walls are whitewashed and lean slightly inwards, red wooden beams support the structure.
The campsite is lovely, in the middle of the swampy area, with fine views towards another similar village that stands out against the range further south. A heavy downpour hangs over the valley and looks just minutes away, though now that we enjoy tea and biscuits the bad weather wouldn't really bother us anymore.
The storm went somewhere else, and the evening is nice and warm and invites for a walk in town. Truck tracks in the village surprise me, then I see the dirt road going south. Lobsang tells me it connects Dat with the Leh-Manali highway, though tourists are not allowed to use it. The road also goes over the Yar La, luckily a different route than the walking trail so there's no risk of being overtaken by a car. The village itself is not very interesting, the gompa seems well kept at first glance. But the rooms that must haven been monk-cells once are now totally neglected and the courtyard paintings of the protector deities are in a sad state. The outside architecture reminds me of pictures I have seen from Western Tibet - Guge and Purang. Maybe the lama will later stop by to collect the money for the campsite, and will be able to tell me more about the monastery and even let me in. Karnak valley once belonged to Ladakh's richest monastery in Hemis, but since gompas are not allowed to own land anymore, I wonder how much support Dat gets from Hemis.
After another great dinner, including the richest chocolate cake I have ever eaten, I admire the night-sky with more stars than all the previous nights. Scenes from today's spectacular day are in my head as I fall asleep.
The coldest night so far, the waterbottle froze solid. Little ice-crystals fall down my neck as I stretch inside the tent - still inside my sleeping bag. The sun hits the dining tent after the first cup of tea and we enjoy being warmed up while having custom-made omelettes.
The first part takes us across the swampy plain towards Dat Go (ĎHead of Datí), the village half a mile south of our camp. Dozens of narrow but deep rivulets run through the yellow meadow. They are still frozen and make walking easy, soon I've crossed the plain and arrive at the village. From far away it looks idyllic between the golden meadow and the yellow washed out organ pipes, above them stretches a wide barren desert until a snowy range at the horizon. Once inside the village the garbage and waste of "civilisation" turn me off and I'm happy to be out in the plain above the river. The completely even valley floor is bordered by hills, the vastness feels great.
Fog and white clouds move in and out of the ranges to the right, large clouds have already built up above the cragged massif we came from yesterday. Above us is blue sky, increasing the feeling of walking in a desert. Not a bush, let alone a tree, is in sight. The two gullies I cross are dried out, but some one-foot high green bushes and tiny flowers survive there. The canyon walls to the left and the hills to the right feature some narrow animal trails. A cloud of dust approaches, in the exact moment I see the mounted horse two large animals shoot out from a little gully on my left, and quickly disappear in a hollow to the right. After my initial surprise I realise that the rider on his way to Dat scared up two khyang - the rare Tibetan wild ass.
A motorable dirt road has been finished recently and connects the valley with the Leh - Manali highway. Although we will not see a vehicle on our entire trek, just the thought of walking on a 'road' is making it less enjoyable. Of course local people's needs come first - especially before trekkers' wishes - but it makes me feel sad that after the next five years it will be hard to find remote trekking routes anymore. The valley with Yar La on its top is not that far away, but to actually see our destination from the flat plain makes it a very long and tiring walk.
I must be far ahead, nobody is following me so I sit down to wait in the shade of one of the mani walls which are built along the trail. A strange noise around me seems to come from nowhere, finally I lift my head and spot the large eagle that circles above me. After some more turns the large bird leaves. Through binoculars I see a herd of 7 khyangs across the plateau, and a larger herd below a slope. They perform some kind of mating ritual, two (males?) quickly gallop into the herd and drive it apart, then they run around them and further break up the party until they singled out a female. Hopefully we'll get a chance to watch the rare animals from much closer on our way to Tso Moriri.
I fasten my pace to catch up with Lobsang who went ahead with lunch. Soon he turns into a small black figure in the immense landscape. Suddenly he is gone. The trail leads into a sidevalley, and still neither Lobsang nor lunch are in sight. Iím in desperate need for lunch, both for food and a break from the morningís monotony. At the foot of a cliff we finally rest.
This morning has been a slog with fascinating but unchanging scenery for hours. This will change, the road is still there but we will take a more direct route to the pass. At the foot of the pass starts a stone wall, two feet high but without any carved stones on it. It's not a mani wall but simply the trail for winter in times of much snowfall.
It is a steep, rewarding climb. A white chorten appears against the black sky, the cold wind blows scraps of dark clouds across the sky. Prayerflags flatter in the wind on the ridge. Crossing passes on nice days is pleasant, now the chorten against the heavy clouds and flags being torn by winds is more memorable, and increases the meaning of the monument. The mani stones are exceptionally beautiful, carved on reddish stones so similar to the ones at Lhatso that it's probably the work of the same artist.
Tenba and Phuntsok are already waiting and look for a sheltered spot. Our leadhorse arrives, Tenba the horseman adds a stone to the pile and continues to Lungmoche. Halfway down I meet a shepherd who watches his flock of sheep and goats. About one hundred animals graze between the bushes on the barren slope, but since the weather is turning nasty he also gets ready to go down.
Our campsite lies some minutes above the village, seeing how fast the snow-clouds approach increases the speed of putting up the tent. Eventually the clouds move on. Getting drenched, snowed in or staying dry is just a matter of two hundreds meters. Nevertheless, it stays cold enough to make any outdoor activity unpleasant and since it's getting dark I don't follow Lobsang to Lungmoche. He goes down to the village to fetch local specialities. Tenba uses the fresh yoghurt in a fantastic curry. Mixed with spinach and dal baht we enjoy another high-altitude feast.
As the sun rises, the mountains glow orange and the sky is incredibly blue.
A yak herd is already on their way up to their pastures, two dozen animals plod up the slope. Teenagers drive five flocks of sheep and goat towards the pass, three groups are going down the valley. It seems that sheep is looked after by each family themselves. At night they bring back their animals and put them inside the stone cage as a protection against wolves and snow leopards. The women and kids milk the larger sheep, a tiring work for little amounts of milk.
I want to reach the village while people are still there and leave quickly. Few people live in the semi-permanent village, after seeing Dat and Dat Go I expected to find a larger summer settlement here. There are probably other settlements like Lungmoche in the area. People depend on their animals, yaks are most valuable and therefore rarely slaughtered. They are great pack animals and give rich milk, the vital meat supply comes mainly from sheep. Two families have slaughtered a goat this morning and cut up the meat. The husbands stay in the village with their wife, while their children have left the village with the flock. The young kids are outgoing to the point of rudeness, talking to their parents is more relaxed and interesting.
The gompa of Dat is being looked after by lay-people, these semi-monks are allowed to marry, and live lives like all the others. Religious duties in Dat require commitment and extra work, which less people are willing to do these days. I wonder what kind of support they get from their head-monastery in Hemis. That is the richest monastery in Ladakh, since it lies hidden in the fertile Indus valley and thus escaped pillaging invaders.
On the trail we pass a few mani walls on our way to an unnamed low pass that separates Lungmoche from Sangtha. The slopes are barren except for some low dark green bushes, the reddish hills follow each other in an endless succession. Once you know the path that connect the villages, the territory seems less threatening. Yet the first explorers probably not only had to cope with enormous physical hardships, but also with worries and disillusion as they wandered in barren deserts for weeks on end, not knowing when to reach the next settlement. For us it is a straight-forward walk towards the isolated pile of stones with a simple prayerflags on top, knowing that in some hourís time weíll find shelter. This pass is either considered not important or not travelled often.
We look into another valley, yellow stone at its bottom but the colour gets darker higher up and the top at the horizon is formed by black rock mountains. Suddenly we drop into a gorge that could be near Lake Powell, and not the Himalayas. The red cliffs have bizarre holes and cambers. A fine place for lunch.
The bottom of the valley is completely flat and must have been covered by a huge river or glacier ages ago. A storm looms over us as we wander across the plain, fighting against a strong wind that, to my surprise, carriers neither dust nor sand. Just before the plain gives way to hills, a dried out riverbed lies ten meters below us. At its bank are a dozen simple stones buildings, not as simple as Dat or Lungmoche, but neither as homely as Hankar. This is the village of Sangtha. It is abandoned now, only the spread-out yak dung indicates that people come here in winter to spend the cold months here. The chortens across the river are outstanding, almost a dozen whitewashed monuments are grouped together and connected by a mani wall.
Like the other villages so far, this is also a Ladakhi village. Our camp lies higher up, near one of the few Tibetan settlements. The grazing rights are strict, the Tibetans are not allowed to come down here. They graze instead in the other direction. I wonder how much interaction is going on between the villages, and if they're always on a friendly basis. Especially after too much chang, discussion can be strong, I've experienced.
It is more tiring walking uphill, the horses have passed us and become smaller and smaller in the distance. The scenery is great, hills in all colours gently rise above the plain, and the wind plays with the clouds and arranges them in all kinds of shapes.
I hoped to find a nice and lively Tibetan village. But it is not that different from the Ladakhi villages, presently dilapidated and abandoned.
Shortly after arriving I decide to get a complete wash. A pipe collects the water from a spring, some puddles have turned into ice. Nevertheless I manage to get a good wash, freezing vital organs only temporarily. It feels wonderful five minutes later with clean clothes, lying in the sleeping bag and warming up with a hot chocolate. A hot footbath does wonders, the two blisters that have emerged are gone for good.
Temperatures are not as cold, though something makes me sleep less well than the nights before.
Early start for everybody, we should get to Nabru on time to catch the jeep that takes us to Pang - walking the four hours over the plain next to the concrete road wouldn't be fun. Only one more pass and the first part of the trek will already be finished.
The trail branches off and we climb on a flank away from the broader trail. The hillside shows the typical marks of goat traffic, numerous trails that seem like steps on a pyramid. I can only imagine how green and different it all must look in summer. What looked like chorten is a natural pile of rubble on a little summit. The views towards where we came from show immense scenery; gentle hills don't block the view over the endless vastness. As we get to the natural chorten, we turn left and climb up higher. A new range appears on the right as we start traversing the hillside. Lobsang ran after Bob who took the broad trail, I'm not sure I am on the one that Lobsang suggested but the general direction seems ok and even if we're wrong the crew behind us will point us to the right direction. Soon everybody catches up and together we walk towards the pass that is soon visible. Two piles of stones with prayerflags between mark the end of the trek - luckily just the end of the first stage.
Below us stretches a wide valley, enclosed by snow peaks, above which sunshine and a local storm seem to fight over air supremacy. As striking as it looks, I'm happy to see the dustcloud of a jeep approaching which means I can give my feet some rest and enjoy the short drive to Pang. Wangchuk is waiting and greets me with his wide smile, and then we're on one of the most spectacular roads on earth. The black tarred road is a tiny line in this grand landscape where empty barrels of tar are put up every hundred meters to mark the road. Only a few orange Tata trucks are on the road. At the end of the plateau Wangchuk stops, below is a large canyon in which we'll camp tonight after a short hike from Pang. It is a few more minutes on the serpentine road to the 'town' that is less disgusting than I feared. Army barracks form the one end, a dozen parachute restaurants the other. The Indian army uses huge cargo parachutes, once they're too old for dropping supplies; locals use them as tents and install a shop and restaurant inside. The white cloth keeps the dust and heat out and makes it pleasantly bright inside.
The major road to Leh passes through Pang (the one from Srinagar passes through Kargil and is 'artillery-prone') and the tourists and army generate enough business for the Ladakhi women running the shops. But here, like elsewhere in Ladakh, they complain about bad business.
Jamie should be waiting here with fresh supplies, and a fresh trekker. Malc from England arrived some days ago in Leh and will be on the climbing part of the trek. A great guy, somehow all the Brits I've been trekking with were fun. Nicole will leave us here after having trekked for more than a month. Everything goes smoothly, Jamie really did arrive with all the supplies the day before yesterday despite a motor ralley in which only 20% of the cars arrive at the destination (it's probably a good idea the road was closed for other traffic that day!). We have a hot noodle soup, Tibetan tea, and buy all the remaining soft drinks and chips. Soon the horses are here. Reloading takes some time and I enjoy a nap. In the late afternoon we're ready to start.
The security in the army camp seems lax, we just walk through the barracks to get down to the valley floor. Iím pretty sure if you would do that in western Jammu youíd be shot without warning. An officer gets off his chair and looks at us for a few seconds as we walk down to the river. Jumping across the few spots where the water level is deep isnít too difficult. Strange rock formations watch down on us as we continue up the river in search for a suitable campsite. Strangely the horses haven't caught up with us, after some time Jamie walks back to Pang to check if everything is ok. I assume Tenba knows the restaurant owners and after packing the horses went to chat a little. It's very windy and cold, I'm looking forward to my down jacket that arrives twenty minutes later on the back of the horse. Tents are set up quickly, hot soup and dinner mark the end of another good day that wasnít marred by the stopover in civilisation.
I sleep longer than usual and am woken up by hot temperatures. The cold wind has stopped completely. The waterlevel is still low and it is an easy stroll in the canyon without detours or river crossings. The puffy white clouds on the sky don't block the sun, for the first time I donít have to wear a sweater. Far ahead lies a dark mountain, yesterday's bad weather put some snow on the range to the right. This is the only reminder of being in the Himalayas. Over thousands of year the elements formed the yellow sandstone into bizarre figures on both sides of the river. Washed out yellow sandstone blocks seem to look down on us, erosion has created an army of man-like figures that form the rim of the valley. The meandering creek that glitters silvery against the sun gives it a friendly appearance. Just as we sit down for lunch under a huge washout in a sidevalley an icy wind picks up and sends tiny snowflakes down my back until I get dressed properly. So much for a relaxing rest.
The horsemen suggest route to Tso Moriri unknown to Joel (which means something), weíre all eager to take it and let them pass us. When we catch up the horse have just turned around and walk towards us. Tenba signals us to go on; claiming we can continue though for the horses the gorge is too steep. A little rivulet runs down the cleft over small waterfalls. We get from one large boulder to the next, some are covered with ice. A short but very steep climb on loose scree slope is the last obstacle before the end of our direct route. While resting on the top the silhouettes of the horses appear on the ridge. We must be close to 5í000 m, still there are many signs of nomadic life. The scenery gets more destitute, snow-covered saddles appear ahead of us. The horses keep going, we just follow in the hope of them finding a good campsite.
We camp at a spot with enough grass for the horses; a little meadow surrounded by low mountains. It is not clear which pass we cross tomorrow, it depends the level and consistency of snow. It snows for a minute, when the sun reappears itís quite warm. For the first time in two weeks it's possible to really relax outside without huge layer of clothing, allowing us to make use of the early arrival. Half an hour later it snows again, this time from the other direction. The range across the valley looks fantastic with the fresh white snow and the dark storm clouds looming over it.
After dinner I take 1/4 diamox as a precaution against strange breathing patterns (Chang Stoke syndrome) which I know will make it hard for me to fall asleep. Itís always like this in the first night at 5'000 meters for me, the first time I was seriously worried and felt like choking, now it's just an annoyance. The medicine works. Kind of, at least. Instead of being kept awake by the breathing troubles for an hour, constant pressure on my bladder wakes me every hour. Lesson 1: Next time try 1/8 diamox. Lesson 2: Next time bring pee-bottle.
A very cold night with beautiful scenery: the crescent of the moon stands above the white ranges, countless stars and the Milky Way appear in the pitch dark sky.
The horses are given more time than usual to warm up and graze before being packed for a long day. I spot (yesterday's?) pika, it runs in the open field for a few seconds before it disappears in the ground. "Good things come to those who wait". I sit down ten feet from one of the many holes in the ground. A minute later a small nose and two black eyes peep out, inspecting me for some moments. The noise of my cameraís shutter make it retreat to safety. Soon the pika comes out again. Now being used to the sound it allows me to take some close-up pictures. When I return with some food, it has disappeared.
It is time for us to start anyway, the horses are almost ready. We follow the little creek, after a bend a steep mountain flank appears to our left. The ridge must be close to 6í000 meters. Despite the sunshine it is chilly when we wait half an hour later. It hasnít been decided which of the three potential passes we should take, the horsemen inspected yesterday night and will tell us. The left one is impossible for the horses, and after inspection not an option for us either. The middle one seems possible for us, Lobsang is already climbing up the little gorge. Itís definitely not the easiest route, and we decide to walk with the horses. Their speed is slow, but perfect for me to follow them. They leave the creek and slowly climb up traversing the barren hillside. The valley then makes a sharp left turn, the opposite side is covered by snow. At the end of it must be the pass, but itís guesswork since we're not high enough to see it yet. The higher they get the more breaks they need, allowing me to catch up when they stop. It is rather tough climb, and our group has spread out. The trail curves gently 90% to the left and we steadily gain altitude, finally reaching the first patches of snow.
We're on the 'gentle' side of the valley, the other side is towered by sharp ridges and steep snowfields. The little depression ahead could be a pass, but the wall below looks too steep to be accessible. The horsemen take a less direct route and climbing higher to the left instead. The silhouettes of horses against the dark clouds are a memorable sight. Blue sky and storm clouds, together with the snow and dark rocks make it an intimidating and wild landscape. High above us Ė demoralizingly high above us - stands a tiny figure and waves. First I think itís Tenba our cook who passed me some minutes ago. Luckily it's Lobsang who is on the way down from his route. Before reaching the foot of the pass, we have to get down to the bottom of the valley, a tiring traverse over little pieces of scree and loose rock. I'm not exhausted yet, but really, really tired. The final ascent is difficult, some inches to a feet of snow lie on the scree and hides larger rocks. After some minutes I wait and let the horses pass to break trail. They are working hard and breath heavily. A few times they slip and are hold back by a horseman.
After two and half hours Iím on the ridge, the pass is a little below. Even the horsemen take a short break. Dark clouds hang over gentle hills that rise from the valley with yellow grass, their summits are covered by snow. Countless mountains form the horizon where we just came from. Getting to 6'000 meters would be an easy walk uphill. Clouds will probably prevent good views in half an hour. And climbing for altitude is not a worthy reason. We have enough days to climb a real peak.
Instead I go down to the real pass which is marked with a simple stone lhatso and a prayerflag. The snow on the col goes to up my knees, but the surface is frozen and when walking carefully I don't break in. Sooner than expected, the scree isnít covered by snow anymore which making downhill walking easy on the knees. The glacier ends abruptly at the foot of little frozen pond.
Lobsang waits with lunch at a nice spot but two quick sandwiches later Iím already heading further down. The trail soon disappears in the wide valley. I follow the frozen creek, hoping to see our horses ahead. Our breaks have given them enough time to disappear, for a quick moment I catch them with binoculars and know roughly which way to take. The meadow is vast but nomads have already moved on, either because of temperatures or lack of grass. When possible I slide down on the creekís ice, when the groaning noises become more numerous I change the path. It is probably wiser to take the normal route.
I stumble across the wide valley, not because of exhaustion but lack of variety. The scenery, though stunning, does not change during the hour-long slog and a gloomy feeling hangs in the air. The surrounding dark hills mixed with green grass looks eerie, especially because of the strange light that is radiated by the sun that is a weak yellow ball in an evenly grey sky. The valley is flat, but I havenít seen our horses. They must be terribly far ahead. Then, in a little depression to the left I spot a parachute tent. A closer look reveals our dining tent. After having submitted to the fact of walking another two hours this unexpected sight is very welcome.
Just ten minutes later, after a wash with warm water, I feel refreshed and enjoy the last moments of the afternoon in the kitchen tent.
Malc and Joel arrive half an hour later, Malc looks exhausted but it doesn't seem to influence his mood, a jolly fellow. Lance and Bob must have decided to climb the Ďpeakí above the pass with Jamie. They were both quite slow on the way to the pass, I wonder if their decision was a wise one. I'm enjoying the kitchen tent atmosphere when it gets disrupted all of a sudden. The others arrive in the dark, having nearly missed the camp.
Tomorrowís walk will be equally long.
A restday is announced. We will move camp a little further down, probably just an hour or so. Today could become an uneventful restday in the middle of nowhere.
After breakfast things are packed up, I take a little detour towards Tso Kar and should be at camp around noon. I walk to the north where some hills offer potential views. Following a little trail we first we climb up to a little pass between the gentle hills. Prayerflags announce the lonely pass. Behind it the scenery opens up and offers a stunning view. A green lake stands out from the barren scenery, this must be Tso Kar. Despite the green colour it translates to 'White Lake' because of the crust of salt on its banks. Yak caravans used to bring the salt to Leh, but it has been abandoned as it has stopped being lucrative. The other change in the beautiful monotony of endless hills is a lovely sidevalley with a meandering creek. The subtle colours and play of sunrays and clouds turn it into a timeless scene. We literally watch storms pass by, low hanging clouds drop snow on the hills and then move on to the next. On the way back we get caught in such a dark cloud, a cold wind suddenly hits us and fine snowballs (no flakes) hit our faces. Itís quite an experience that is over five minutes later.
Back in the valley the vastness is overwhelming. A little trail leads down the valley, seemingly going on forever. Then, after a bend in the valley, the tents appear on a backdrop of barren hill. Two huge finely built domes of snow rise on the horizon.
A wash in the icy river and a short nap later dinner arrives. This wasnít too exciting a day, and it seems we're might stay here another night. Instead of climbing a peak of the Mentok Range Jamie spotted another mountain. Iím not in the mood for it and might set out on my own tomorrow to summit a less technical 6í000 meter peak.
My plan was to walk up the scree slope of an adjacent peak, probably above 6'000 meters but technically just a stroll. When I open the tent early before sunrise it's very cold, and fog lingers around, so my early departure is postponed until sunrise. The good thing about being alone in camp is that you get little treats like large amounts of hot water, and special breakfast: hot noodle soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Malc is also up, we set out for a short walk towards the glacier. Actually he just wanted to go a short way to the grazing horses, his altitude sickness is still there though less severe. It's a very pleasant walk, and we continue towards the mountain that the others are climbing. The weather gets worse. The peak I originally wanted to climb is completely covered in mist and I won't even attempt it. A little hill seems a worthwhile alternative, once we get halfway up the weather turns really bad. We're at the altitude of the glacier, below us the frozen glacial pond that seem characteristic of Ladakhi glaciers. It starts to snow, after building a cairn and enjoying a snack we turn around. On the way down we quickly get out of the cloud, and though the weather higher up is still bad, it's fine here. Another encounter with wildlife: a large Tibetan hare flees from us.
Tenba makes us two plates of French fries, another rest-day luxury. After a little morning walk it's great to enjoy a nap after lunch. I wake up an hour later when the sun gets too hot, take a wash in the frozen river and sit outside with a book. The 'climbers' have come back, after being forced to turn around by bad visibility and freezing temperatures. They worked hard but didn't get much higher than we did.
Tomorrow we'll go on, we've stayed here too long anyway for my taste - I'm longing for wildlife or culture, or just a change of scene. Combining climbing and trekking works as long as there are enough alternatives for people not eager to climb, but when non-climbers have to sit around with nothing to do it becomes boring.
The climb to the first pass starts right after breakfast. This is the easiest 5'000 meter pass Iíve ever crossed, just a short 20-minute hike up the hill and weíre on the broad saddle. It is marked with a little prayerflag. A gentle slope takes us down into a wide valley on the other side, the impressive range that rises above it ends in a fine summit. Some of our tents havenít been packed yet, the tiny figures on their way up to the pass increase the magnificence of the landscape. Once more Iím reminded of the humbling effects of trekking, and though it never makes me feel insignificant it puts things into perspective. This seems to be an ideal place for wildlife, but I only spot a dozen 'mountain chickens' fleeing from me.
We can look into three valleys, the longest one gets smaller as it climbs up between two mountain ranges. A promising route, and the one weíll take. It leads to the final pass before Karzok. A second valley opens up to the right, offering close sights of the mountains we saw from the earlier pass. After a nice mani wall it starts to climb up, away from the creek. Lobsang stops for lunch, I'm not hungry at all and want to push on without losing the momentum. The trail is easy enough to find, after a branch in the valley the trail disappears for some minutes but then resumes. I enter a narrow valley with a strange combination of white snow and black rock. Despite its size, the rivulet takes up most of the space and the trail is hard to find as it climbs up in the valley.
Though Iím aware Iím not alone (the others are just an hour behind), a solemn atmosphere of refreshing solitude governs this valley. Curve after curve I climb up without much of a view, then a wide snow saddle appears. It feels like climbing out of a chimney, the valley has narrowed, and then suddenly there is all this space around me. Two fine peaks dominate the view in the west, to the east are sheer cliffs that drop down towards the blue waters of Tso Moriri. At the horizon behind the lake rises a mountain range. A little lhatso with prayerflags that flatter in a strong and icy wind lies in the middle of the snow-covered plain.
The trail takes a left turn and leads to another chorten that stands elevated above the ridge where the main trail descends steeply. I sit down and marvel at the surroundings: The deep blue Tso Moriri lies between ochre hills that culminate in lofty ranges. More mountains rise behind them, puffy white clouds float in the blue sky above. Itís one of the sights that bring tears to your eyes. Despite the cold wind I stay at the pass for an hour. Calls from Tenba and Phuntsok wake me from my daydreams.
They must have walked fast, and after some snaps head down the other side. The horses arrive; I quickly pack my stuff and follow them down the barren slope that leads to an equally barren plain. A ridge separates us from the lakeís shore. In spring and summer, the melting glacial water must turn this plain into an impressive lush meadow. A fissure in the rocks is the inflow from the glacier's creeks.
The walk is long but the views are so exciting that I forget the hard walk we've done so far. As we reach the valley floor, I realise it will quite another stretch to the campsite. The camps of Ladakhi nomads, their white tents grouped together in pairs of three, are an hour ahead. Some nomads continue to live in more traditional brown yak-wool tents. The women walk to the water hole further down to fetch water for cooking, their children joined them and help loading the vessels onto donkeys. The kids are very shy and don't ask for pens or sweets.
Judging by the sound of drums and cymbals a religious ceremony is being performed. An old man carries two artefacts out of the tent and places them on the other side of the empty river. I guess it is a protective ceremony where the bad spirits are cast into a figure that can be physically removed out of the tent, and thus out of the family's life. The monks performing the ceremony are from Karzok where a dozen properly ordained monks live in the monastery.
Just as dusk sets in, a large horde of yaks are driven up from Karzok and grass on the meadow. Our horses that were left free to graze are now collected and tethered near our tents.
I've gotten used to the strange sleeping patterns that make me early at 5.00 every day. But since we usually go to bed at 20.00 Iím getting enough sleep, for I never feel tired during the day.
In Nepal it's often worth getting up before dawn - the early sun turns the ice and snow clinging to the sheer faces in a great light. In Ladakh the sunrise is often less spectacular, with the notable exception of Karzok and the Mentok range. The sky turns the firmament from black to dark blue, finally slowly changing into orange above the black silhouettes of the range that surrounds the lake. Next the sun hits the ridge of the snow range above us, marking the very top of the highest peak with a pink colour. It fades into an orange that covers the whole mountain flank. Now more and more snow turns into yellow, when the sun rises above the mountains (in Tibet?) the freezing temperatures in the tent are giving way to warmth.
Jamie and Lance start for their climb. For me the activity around the nomad tents prove too interesting to join them, instead I enjoy a very lazy morning in the warm temperatures. The kids are already out, soon afterwards their parents start their work. It seems that 'summer' is over and people get ready for the winter: products acquired during the gentle season are packed for sale or trade. Three big yaks are loaded with bulky and heavy bags. It takes two men many attempts before the yak accepts the heavy load. The neighbours are also up and pack their yak, but they less goods to pack. There seem to be agreements between families as what is done by each family themselves and what is considered collective work.
When another tent has finished packing, the half dozen animals leave together, guided by two nomads. They are not going to Karzok, but head further north over the plain and then up the barren hillside that separates us from the lake. White mountains in the hazy distant and the caravan make a great sight. The dotted line of the animals get smaller and smaller. More and more caravans leave, some using other animals as transport, even goats carry little bags. Mules are used to haul odds and ends like cooking pots, bottles, bags, and even small kids who are tied to the animal's backs.
I sit in the sun and watch all the activity in the safe distance from the watchdogs that are napping in the warm sun. After a long breakfast I follow the other main trail down along the empty riverbed. The sun wasn't that hot for the last two weeks, the large crystal-clear pools in the creek's bends look very tempting. Sticking in my arm reassures me: the water is too cold to wash, let alone bathe in it.
Entire families are on their way to Karzok. Riding mules and horses seems to be reserved for men, mothers carry their babies on their bags while their husband leads the horse. We pass a dozen mani walls with very fine carvings. Some mantras are not spelled on one stone, but each syllable put on a different stone, something Iíve never seen before. After passing a sidevalley with a huge peak on top, the trail makes a last bend and then the lake lies ahead of us: a deep blue contrasted by the red hills and white mountains on the opposite shore. The renovated monastery stands out in the same colours. Horses, goats, yaks, mules and sheep graze near the shore, most inhabitants are finishing harvest work.
Some of the flat land near the creek's inflow must is used as barley fields in the summer, other than that I havenít seen sign of agriculture. At the lake's shore the colour is less blue, as waves glitter in the sun and blur the blue colour. Near the inflow the ice groans and cracks while it's slowly melting. To the southeast are the mountains of Chinese occupied Ladakh. To the north the lakeís surface is still and reflects snow-capped mountains in the blue water. The village itself is picturesque from the shore only. The dirt and garbage is a strange sight after walking through - if not exactly pristine- at least intact mountain scenery. Many new houses are built, old ones are dilapidating, and though Karzok does not have the appearance of a boomtown it must have undergone radical changes in the last few years. White-wash is coming off the facades, the newer buildings are built with cement.
From the chortens above the town the views over the lake and mountains to the south are spectacular. The door to the monastery is closed, and the monks are not helpful in finding the key-keeper so I soon head back to camp. The sun is scorching and the way back seems very long, hunger and a little thirst do not make it shorter. Nevertheless, it is a great walk - hot sun, white clouds, blue sky, gurgling creek and people greeting me in loud voices as they pass me.
Half-starved I arrive at camp, soon afterwards Tenba has prepared a simple but tasty rice stew. With a full stomach I take the thermarest out of the tent and enjoy a nap.
When I wake up half an hour later, curious kids stand around the camp. They have never played with a Frisbee before, their mothers also start playing until something scares them off. I turn around and the only thing thatís remotely scary is our jeep. The kids run away as Wangchuk is driving up. They won't come closer than 20 meters. Wangchuk, our driver has a wide smile on his face like (almost) all the time, it gets a little wider as he shakes our hands. He started from Leh this morning and will bring us back there tomorrow. Another jeep has arrived from south and will take Joel and others to Manali. Both drivers are scared that the wind and temperatures in the night will freeze the batteries that will make it impossible to start their engines tomorrow, and therefore decide to drive back to the village and spend the night there.
Jamie and Lance are still on the mountain, luckily now on their way down, but they'll have a long walk ahead of them and dusk has already set in. We can't spot them for a long time, as dinnertime draws near the two flashlights come closer and closer. Lance is exhausted and retires; Jamie seems just a little tired which doesn't stop him from enjoying the excellent dinner with cake as desert. Consumption of alcohol was not very high during this trek. Even though todayís cocktail hour with a well-equipped bar is not successful in terms of consumed amounts of alcohol, it is appreciated. And it feels good to be looked after so well by Joel and Jamie, somehow they always achieve a great balance between unobtrusive luxury and enjoyable simplicity. I find this balance essential to enjoy trekking.
I stay up later than usual, enjoying the last evening in the cosy dining tent. The crew must have had a more Ďsuccessfulí and longer happy hour, when we go to bed a brawl starts between Tenzing, the young horse-boy, and Lobsang. It spoils the fine last evening.
The drive from Karzok to Leh will be long, so we pack early. The jeeps wouldn't be able to drive down once loaded, so we have to pack like on regular trekking days and move things to Karzok. Fetching and tethering the horses and packing them takes long, we leave earlier and spend time in the village. This time the door to the monastery is open. Though the anteroom is being rebuilt, the mural paintings in the chapel itself were not changed and are quite old. The statues seem equally old, most are made of wood and have slightly different proportions than what I've seen before. It'd be interesting to find out more about Karzok's past, and the connections it had with Tibet.
The drivers get a little impatient; Wangchuk wants to leave to make sure we have enough time to visit his brother - the schoolmaster of the school in Sumdo. Finally the horses arrive, and the loads are packed into the jeeps. Though fully packed, the military checkpoint wants us to take two soldiers. Our driver gets very irritated and refuses with angry and nervous arguments, then we drive on. For half an hour the road runs at the lake's shore, the water showing some turquoise elements as well as the 'common' blue. High mountains form the northern end of the lake where we enter a valley where dust-covered construction workers are building a new road which will connect Ladakh with Spiti. Some trekking routes in Rupshu will thus be destroyed, I might have to hurry if I want to explore all parts of Ladakh by foot.
We have walked through a lot of barren scenery, but it never seemed desolate because there were signs of life - even if it was just a piece of moss on a stone. Now the world seems to consist entirely of barren stone, pebbles and rocks. It is probably because we're driving in the car, and cannot see the little details that make the rough Ladakhi scenery so enchanting.
Two nomadic settlements lie on the other side of the valley, how and on what they survive remains a mystery. Apart from the few tents, no other building appears for the whole morning. After some hours of dusty driving we arrive in Sumdo, a nice looking traditional Tibetan village with a large school. All thoughts the desolate valleys are forgotten when I enter the classroom. Three dozen kids aged 4 to 13 years are sitting in a cosy looking classroom. Very engaged in their learning, they get distracted only for some short moments when we enter, soon they get back to their material. The youngest pupils are learning the letters of the Tibetan alphabet, using cards with a picture for each letter. Y is represented by a yak. The older ones write whole sentences. Some of the children are from nomadic families, where until recently literature rate was around 15%. The others come from Sumdo itself or smaller hamlets. The school year is coming to its end, in November are the tests, then kids go home to their families and spend winter with them.
The school is run by the Tibetan government-in-exile, the teachers come from Choglomasar (the Tibetan camp below Leh) and work here in two-year turns. Though it is quite noisy when the children read their alphabet loud, the teacher who is in sole charge of 30 kids seems relaxed and checks everybodyís homework without being stressed. It must be a tough job, though maybe more rewarding than teaching in Europe or US. After playing with the children during their break and a cup of butter tea afterwards we have to leave to reach Leh before nightfall. Sumdo would probably worth staying a night.
Despite the scenery the drive soon starts to get uncomfortable; the sun is gone and it gets chilly. The valley runs east west and gets wider, at first yellow powder from hot springs covers the plain, slowly more bushes grow on our way to Tso Kar. The lake appears in front of us, I try to find the pass from where we saw the lake a week ago in Sharma. The white salt covers everything, deep furrows cut the earth into pieces and if I didn't know it was salt I would assume this was a runaway glacier. Soon after the lake we hit the paved road that connects Leh with Manali. The two jeeps separate, without saying goodbye Joel, Bob, Tenba, Phuntsok and Lobsang take a left and drive to Manali, we turn right towards Taglang La. The second highest motorable pass on earth rises high above us; orange dots with black fumes must be petrol trucks climbing up the serpentines. Few vehicles are on the road, we slowly climb higher and higher in fantastic high altitude scenery. After traversing the flank an icy wind greets us at the pass.
Getting down will take us longer than driving up because the valley on the Leh side is 1'000 meters lower than on the Ruphsu side where we've just come from. This whole drive would be great during the day, especially when we reach the bottom the nice villages, narrow gorges ancient chortens and little plantations would be interesting. But it is already getting dark, and after 6 hours of driving I wouldn't mind arriving.
When we hit the Indus valley it has become completely dark. The bright lighted officers party tent would make a perfect aim for Pakistani soldiers, I can imagine those just back from the Line of Control enjoy this luxury. The blueish glimmering of tv-screens comes from most houses along the road, flash bulbs illuminate the goods in the garage-shops that are well frequented. One or two close encounters with dogs, donkeys and bicycles later the lit rooms of Tikse rise into the night sky like a pyramid.
After almost 8 hours of driving we arrive, our driver as relaxed as he was when we started but I can feel my back and other body parts aching for a little comfort. The warm bed, soft mattress and clean fresh smelling bed-sheets are like a dream. I sleep well.
The first night in a large bed with blankets is a luxury I appreciate. Usually I spend an hour in a hot bathtub after a trek but this is not possible in Leh because of a new law banning hotels from offering running hot water. A sensible restriction. Nevertheless, washing with a bucket of hot water feels like heaven.
I spend the day walking around in Leh, I could have taken a taxi to drive to some monasteries, but it feels good just to sit under the trees reading a newspaper.
My sleep lasts until the Iman decides I've slept long enough. After a quick tea we're off to the airport. It's the first day I got up early in Leh, and just realise how beautiful the sunrise in the Indus valley is.
Security at the airport is tight and takes a long time since the flight is well booked - all carry-on luggage has to be checked in, we are being searched a few times. I don't look like a trekker anymore, and I have to admit the glances from Ladakhi women feel complimentary. Before entering the plane we're check again, and the guy in front of me has managed to get a bullet through the previous 3 checks.
All window seats are gone, I would have liked to get a last glimpse of Tso Moriri. The plane circles a few times over Delhi before landing. There was a delay at Leh already, I'm worried about missing the flight to Bagdogra. In the airport I run to the next terminal, check in just in time, run into the baggage hall to identify my luggage and get on the plane in the last minute.
The haze over the plains has burned off now endless rectangular green fields are below for most of the 1 1/2 hour flight. In the north some snow peaks appear above the white clouds, a huge dome of rock is Mount Everest. Further ahead must be Kangchenjunga, and Sikkim. The different green colours on the fields are overwhelming; rice, banana trees, flowers, little creeks and ponds are as different from Ladakh as moon is from earth. It looks like paradise.
For the first hour the road doesnít climb, after Siliguri while we drive along the river Mahananda we enter a valley that becomes increasingly narrow. Dense forests grow on the step flanks; the variety of smells and looks is overwhelming. Monkeys sit along the road, birds chatter in the trees. In the evening after Iíve arrived in Gangtok a thunderstorm builds up in the north. Dark grey clouds loom over the green rice terraces, huge pine trees grow on the ridge and far away in the distance rises the ice-covered massif of Kangchenjunga. Another part of the Himalayas, yet a different world.